The obvious starting point in conducting a Bible study is learning how to study the Bible! Teachers who truly believe “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) will take great care in interpretation. What tragic mistakes have been made by those who haphazardly dissect God’s Word! Centuries ago, the ancient church leader Jerome wrote, “A false interpretation of Scripture causes that the gospel of the Lord becomes the gospel of man, or, which is worse, of the devil.” Throughout history, people have created all kinds of false doctrines from disconnected snippets of Scripture.
How does a mature leader keep from falling into this trap and “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)? The first step is to learn the basics of biblical interpretation, also called hermeneutics. It’s impossible to adequately summarize this subject in a few paragraphs, but here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
• All Scripture is inspired by God. The Holy Spirit is the divine author of God’s Word and the Scripture is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16,17). A firm belief in the inerrancy (reliability) of the Bible must be the foundation of all biblical interpretation.
• Your interpretations of Scripture must emerge from the biblical text itself and not be read into it. Saint Augustine wrote, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” When you come to the Word looking for evidence to support a position you’ve already decided to take, your reading of Scripture will be skewed. You can find disconnected passages of Scripture to support all kinds of ideas, like the evils of eating lobster (Leviticus 11:10) and the idea that infertility is a result of sin (Job 15:34). Instead, we should come to the Bible with no preconceived ideas, and allow it to form our beliefs.
• Learn as much as possible about the context of the passage. Not only should we look at the Scriptural context (the verses and chapters surrounding the passage we’re interpreting), but we should also consider the cultural context (the time, place, and circumstance of writing and the facts we know about the author and original audience). In doing this, we’ll discover Leviticus 11:10, about detesting creatures of the sea, falls in the middle of a series of dietary restrictions imposed upon the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness between. And in Job 15:34, Job’s misguided friend Eliphaz is speaking of the fate of “wicked men,” claiming that Job falls in that category. We quickly understand neither of these passages is grounds for forming doctrine.
• Different styles of interpretation are necessary for different genres found within the Bible. The Scriptures contain several kinds of literature, including history, proverbs, prophecy, poetry, parables, and epistles. Naturally, they cannot all be interpreted the same way. For example, poetry and prophecy use a great deal of imagery, while the epistles can be understood more literally and applied more easily.
• Compare your interpretation of a Scriptural passage with what the rest of the Bible says on the subject. Don’t limit your interpretation to one book or one author’s perspective. Instead, look at the Bible as a whole. What does Jesus say on the matter? What about Paul? What about the prophets? A.W. Tozer said, “The Word of God well understood and religiously obeyed is the shortest route to spiritual perfection. And we must not select a few favorite passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.”
The purpose of practicing sound biblical interpretation is to honestly pursue the heart of God and build up each other’s faith on the solid foundation of good doctrine. As Paul said of his own ministry, “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Feeling overwhelmed? The job of biblical interpretation becomes much more manageable with the aid of study tools. Most of the following tools are also available online.
• Study Bible: It’s been said the best Bible study tool is the Bible itself. That’s especially true if you have a quality study Bible, which will do much of the work of biblical interpretation for you, providing cross-references, term definitions, and context details. It will even give you tips to apply the Scriptures to your life and the lives of your students. Countless study Bibles are available. Your pastor can help you find one that lines up with the doctrinal positions of your church.
• Concordance: This reference lists every use of every word in the Bible, providing the original Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew words and definitions. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible by James Strong is the gold standard.
• Commentaries: Written by biblical scholars, these in-depth interpretations of Scripture can offer great insight. But remember, commentaries are written by imperfect people who may be pushing their own agendas. Only the Bible itself is free from any error.
· Bible Encyclopedia/Dictionary: These resources give background details about places, people, customs, and objects found in the Bible and can greatly enhance your understanding of a Scripture’s meaning.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with these study tools and grasped the concepts of sound biblical interpretation, you’re ready to begin preparing your lessons. You will utilize these skills not just in preparation, but also during your Bible study meetings. As questions arise about the passage you’re studying, you’ll be familiar enough with the Scripture’s context and comfortable enough with your study tools to point group members toward the answer.
What kind of damage can be done when a Scripture is misinterpreted?
Read 2 Timothy 3:16,17. How can Scripture be used in various ways?
Read 2 Corinthians 4:2. How does a Bible study leader avoid using deception? keep from distorting God’s Word? set forth the truth plainly?
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society®.
“Leading a Bible Study, part 2” is published by National Women’s Ministries, www.women.ag.org, ©2020. Permission to reproduce is limited to personal use or within a teaching setting. All other forms of use are prohibited.